Originally published: Honey Colony
You’ve probably heard the health-conscious mantra popularized by Michael Pollan:
If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t be eating it.
The easiest way to side-step synthetic food additives has been to simply eat certified organic food. But we’ve seen an increasing number of questionable additives being approved for use in organics. There are currently almost 300 non-organic and synthetic compounds approved for use in organic farming or food production. This video presentation (by Mark Kastel, the co-director and senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute) shows a long list of such ingredients — all of which are supposed to have been carefully reviewed for safety prior to approval.
But just how rigorous were those reviews, and are these additives really safe and appropriate for use in organic food? Kastel rightfully points out that fighting for the integrity of the organic label is well worth it, considering the fact that conventional foods are allowed to use thousands of synthetic processing aids and additives, plus residues from a myriad of agricultural chemicals and genetically engineered ingredients.
Research by the Cornucopia Institute reveals disturbing evidence showing that large corporate interests have infiltrated the process, and that the rules put in place to maintain organic integrity are severely compromised. Kastel says:
It seems evident that the people doing the supposedly careful scientific reviews and approving these chemicals have mostly been affiliated with the same corporate agribusinesses and the same food producers that are lobbying for their use.
We thought organics would be different from the rest of the money-dominated corruption in Washington … But the corporations that have gobbled up most of the pioneering organic businesses are relentless in their short-sighted pursuit of profit.
The Organic Food Watergate
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with enforcing the laws regulating organic food, so how are improprieties occurring? According to Kastel, what we have here is nothing short of an Organic Watergate. He explains:
An incident last fall caused Cornucopia staff to do a cursory review of many non-organic and synthetic ingredients that have been approved for use in organics since the USDA took over regulation in 2002. And what do we find? A corporate and governmental conspiracy to allow almost any chemical petitioned by agribusinesses in organic food, regardless of the fact that Congress mandated review of all such substitutes to make sure that they will not damage the environment or human health.
In November 2011, the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board held a meeting in Savannah, Georgia. During that meeting, two $12 billion corporations — Martek Biosciences (a division of the Dutch biotechnology giant DSM) and WhiteWave (a division of the dairy behemoth Dean Foods) — received approval for synthetic, genetically mutated DHA and ARA oils derived from algae and soil fungus, which are then grown in a medium of genetically engineered corn products and organic food.
Furthermore, the oil is then extracted from this biomass using synthetic solvents including hexane, a neurotoxic byproduct of gasoline refinement that is specifically banned in organic food. Martek Biosciences’ lobbyists duped the NOSB into believing that banning hexane was enough of a safeguard but they failed to look at the other petroleum-based solvents used (illegal in organic production). But petrochemical solvent extraction is just the tip of the iceberg. Other questionable manufacturing practices and misleading statements included:
• Undisclosed synthetic ingredients, prohibited for use in organics (including the sugar alcohol mannitol, modified starch, glucose syrup solids, and “other” undisclosed ingredients)
• Microencapsulation of the powder (possibly using nanotechnology), which are prohibited under organic laws
• Use of volatile synthetic solvents, besides hexane (such as isopropyl alcohol)
• Recombinant DNA techniques and other forms of genetic modification of organisms; mutagenesis; use of GMO corn as a fermentation medium
• Heavily processed ingredients that are far from “natural”
Shocked by this incident, the Cornucopia Institute began a more in-depth review of other chemicals approved for use in organics, to determine whether proper procedures and safeguards were followed in the past.
“Guess what? For the most part, sadly, they were not,” Kastel says.
One of the first products the Cornucopia Institute looked at was carrageenan. Like most people in the industry, the initial belief was that it was natural and benign since it comes from seaweed. However, as it turns out, carrageenan is an inflammatory agent tied to serious intestinal disease and is even categorized as a “possible carcinogen.” Just how did that get approved for use in organic foods?
The Integrity Of The Organic Food Label Has Been Compromised
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) provides a structure for reviewing non-organic ingredients being petitioned for approval for use in organic foods, in order to assure the integrity of the organic label. The first line of defense is the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB), which must, by law, maintain a certain diversity of members:
• 4 farmers
• 2 handlers (processors/marketers)
• 3 environmentalists
• 1 conservation expert
• 3 representatives of the public or consumers
• 1 certifier
• 1 retailer
• 1 scientist
The intention was for this board to act as a balance against competing interests and corporate power. Unfortunately, abuses and obvious violations of the Congressional intent have been rampant.
According to Kastel:
The most egregious example of this was when a corporate employee of General Mills was nominated as the ‘consumer representative.’ There was such a strong backlash that her name was withdrawn and later she was nominated and served in a slot reserved for a scientist. She might have technically qualified as a scientist. But by filling a slot with a corporate representative that Congress obviously intended as an independent voice, the board’s agribusiness bias was reinforced. During the Obama administration, a full-time employee of a 700-million-dollar-a-year agribusiness was appointed as a ‘farmer.’ And a similar ‘farmer’ was just appointed to the board, this time a manager at Driscoll’s, the giant, primarily conventional berry producer in California.
Absurd Bias Showing Up In “Independent” Technical Reviews
Before an ingredient can be approved for use in organic food, it must undergo a technical review by the NOSB. As you can see by the list of mandated board members above, the NOSB is not a scientific panel; rather these organic industry stakeholders are meant to use their individual field of expertise and judgment to help evaluate each petition. In order to do so, the petition must include accurate and comprehensive scientific data from truly independent sources.
According to Kastel:
One of the problems of the recent Martek proposal was the gross level of bias exhibited in the technical review (TR) supplied to the NOSB. Even though materials that are highly processed by bleaching or deodorizing have previously been deemed as ‘synthetic,’ the Martek materials presented in the TR as ‘natural.’
From genetically mutated strains of algae never existing before in nature? Instead of presenting independent research regarding a material, the TR was filled with biased statements lacking the required scientific citations. How could the NOSB use their best judgment in evaluating the Martek petitions without sound scientific advice?
Making matters worse, it turns out that of the handful of industry experts who have been advising the NOSB on scientific matters, one of them, Dr. Theuer, co-authored 45 of approximately 50 technical reviews during a two-year span in the 1990s — virtually all of them in support of approving the synthetic material in question for use in organics.
And if you think matters may have gotten better since then, think again. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack was appointed to his post despite massive public outcry, as he was well-known for his agribusiness and biotechnology industry bias. He’s been a strong supporter of genetically engineered crops (including bio-pharmaceutical corn), Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), and animal cloning, for example. The USDA now contracts the Organic Center to produce technical reviews for the NOSB. And who’s behind The Organic Center?
According to Kastel:
[The Organic Center] began as the non-profit organic arm of the powerful Organic Trade Association (OTA) and are generally controlled and funded by the same giant corporations that run that OTA. The rest of The Organic Center’s leadership reads like a who’s who of giant corporations involved in organics: Aurora Dairy, the giant distributor UNFI, the vegetable giant Earthbound Farms, Safeway Grocers, Organic Valley, Whole Foods, and no fewer than four individuals with financial relationships to Dean Foods and their WhiteWave division.
Talk about proverbial foxes guarding the organic chicken coop. Kastel points out that some of the board members of The Organic Center are even from the same companies petitioning for, and/or supporting the use of synthetics in organics! So how can employees of The Organic Center be expected to actually provide wholly independent technical reviews and solid scientific advice to the NOSB, when their bosses are neck-deep in corporate interests?
Carrageenan: Another Ingredient That Should Never Have Been Approved
As mentioned earlier, once the Cornucopia Institute began reviewing carrageenan, a seaweed derivative used as a stabilizer, it became clear that just like Martek’s DHA/ARA oils, it does not belong in truly organic foods. This is a timely issue, as carrageenan is currently up for a sunset reevaluation by the NOSB. (By law, all synthetic ingredients in organics must be reevaluated every five years.) According to Kastel:
When carrageenan was first reviewed in 1995, the NOSB, as required by law, looked at the potential environmental and health impacts after examining a technical review produced by three experts with corporate agribusiness ties: Dr. Steve Harper, director of R&D at Small Planet Foods (now owned by General Mills), Dr. Richard Theuer, a vice-president of R&D at Beech Nut, and Dr. Stephen Taylor, professor of food science at the University of Nebraska and defender of genetic engineering. Dr. Taylor has published studies on genetically engineered organisms (GMO) and allergy risks, co-authored by agribusiness scientists at DuPont and Pioneer Hi-Bred (manufacturers of chemicals and organic seed).
This technical review hardly mentions some potential serious health impacts from degraded carrageenan, failing to cite any of the research to inform the board that historically, as much as 25 percent of carrageenan on the market was categorized as degraded. Current research shows all types of carrageenan can degrade in the body and can create serious known health impacts.
A number of peer-reviewed published papers that should have been cited
indicate that degraded carrageenan causes inflammation and can cause serious intestinal abnormalities. Degraded carrageenan is also considered a possible carcinogen, and it’s in organic foods! There is no doubt that carrageenan is an inflammatory agent. In fact, in testing anti-inflammatory drugs, laboratory animals are given carrageenan to produce inflammatory symptoms. There’s no secret in the medical community that this is a problem.
The technical review also failed to document the known environmental hazards from discharge of alkaline water, the deleterious impacts of seaweed farming to coral reefs, coastal ecosystems, and mangroves. By law, organics is supposed to do no harm. By law, these environmental externalities needed to be considered. Now, carrageenan is up for review again this year. As before, no negative environmental impacts and no human health threats were recognized by the NOSB’s industry-friendly handling subcommittee, which unanimously again recommends its approval.
We must oppose the relisting of carrageenan and assure that it is taken out of organic foods. It shouldn’t be in any food – conventional or organic. We need to be careful about reviews of all synthetics and organics. We need to re-review them, and the weight of your voice will help us make this argument.
The Cornucopia Institute are now pursuing a pressure campaign aimed at the organic program at the USDA, and at the National Organics Standards Board, to persuade them to review the manipulation and misinformation provided at the November NOSB meeting, which led to the approval of synthetic, genetically mutated DHA and ARA oils—ingredients that have been “confidently linked” to health problems in infants.
“We need to be careful about reviews of all synthetics and organics. We need to re-review them,” he says.
On the Cornucopia Institute’s website, you’ll find a proxy letter calling for careful scrutiny of all synthetics and organics; a creditable and independent review process; and a diverse NOSB that truly reflects the organic community as Congress intended.
The law requires the imperative to make sure we have independent oversight. Please, don’t reject organics because corporations have acted recklessly and the USDA has failed to do their legally mandated job. Organic farmers and their ethical processing and marketing partners need your support now more than ever, and your family deserves authentic organic food.